A critical reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ is poem number 536 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. Its title was used by the composer Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano (even if you’re not familiar with Dickinson’s poem or with the film, you may recognise this piece of music). Below is ‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’ (as we may as well call it) along with a short analysis of this enigmatic little poem.
The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –
And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die –
In summary, this poem examines what one’s ‘heart’ most desires: pleasure, ideally, or first and foremost. But, failing that, the heart will settle for being excused from pain, and to live a life without suffering pain. But, failing that, the heart requests ‘Anodynes’ or painkillers (‘Anodyne’ stemming from the Greek for ‘without pain’) to take the pain away. And if those Anodynes don’t work, then sleep or unconsciousness is desirable. And, if sleep fails to soothe one’s ills, death is the one remaining thing the heart asks ‘liberty’ to do. The Inquisitor – some religious figure who may call to mind the ultimate Inquisitor, God (or Death) – is the only one who can help us then. Death is the great painkiller. Unfortunately, of course, it kills everything else too.
So much for a summary, or paraphrase, of Dickinson’s meaning. Yet it may not be as straightforward as that. Should ‘first’ – in that first line – be read as preferential or sequential? In other words, is pleasure what the heart most desires (or, if not active pleasure, then at least to be spared pain, or to be cured of pain, etc.), or what it desires first in life? The sequence seems to be arranged as an order of preferences (I’d rather enjoy life, thank you very much, but if that’s not possible, at least give me a life without actual pain), but it might alternatively be read – given the ambiguity of ‘first’ in ‘The Heart asks Pleasure – first’ – as a chronological list. ‘And then’, note (‘And then … And then … And then … And then …’), not well then, or if not.
In other words, then, we begin life unconcerned by life’s hardships and can enjoy yourselves in the golden age of childhood and youth, and that’s what we most desire – for the pleasure to continue. Then we have a period when life has lost its initial shine and novelty, but at least we can say we have our health, if we’re lucky – so that is what we wish for. As we grow older, we know that we cannot avoid pain, so we long for something to take it away. Then we just want to forget the world and our troubles, and lose ourselves in sleep. Finally, we know that we cannot escape our failing health and the only way out is ‘to die’.
‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’. First, yes – but ultimately, as with so many Emily Dickinson poems, we are heading for death, and the final words of the poem, ‘to die’. To sleep? In two short quatrains, Emily Dickinson gives us the life of the average person and their essential heart’s desires. It’s a concise piece worthy of Jaques’ ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, or Hamlet’s soliloquy. But perhaps our analysis has missed off something that you’d like to add – what do you think of ‘The Heart asks Pleasure first’?
If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. You can discover more about her work with our analysis of her poems ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun‘, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass‘.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.